The Canadian flag was introduced on 15 February 1965.

The distinctive Maple Leaf emblem in the centre of the flag is widely recognised around the world as the defining symbol of Canada. As a result, the flag of Canada is widely known as the Maple Leaf flag (or, in French, l’Unifolié).

Before 1965, Canada did not have an official state flag – although the Canadian Red Ensign was widely used.

What does the Canadian flag look like?

The Canadian flag is known for the distinctive red maple leaf emblem. The leaf contains eleven points, in addition to the stem, and sits on a white background at the centre of the flag.

On either side of the white background is a red bar, the same colour as the maple leaf. Each red bar is a quarter the width of the flag.

Canada Flag

Here is a construction sheet, which demonstrates how the flag should be laid out:

Canada flag construction sheet

The white background in the centre is half the width of the flag. This is wider than the central bar in most flags, and allows more space for the central maple leaf emblem. This type of wider than normal central band is known as ‘Canadian Pale’.

The flag is constructed in a 1:2 ratio. This means that it is twice as wide as it is tall. Because the flag is symmetrical, it looks identical from each side.

Canadian flag colors

Red and white have been Canada’s official colours since the Royal Arms of Canada were introduced in 1921.

The Canadian government has a Federal Identity Program, which sets out the colour values that should be used when reproducing official government symbols, including the flag. The red colour is known as FIP red, and the values are:

  • HEX: #ff0000
  • RGB: 235,45,55
  • Pantone: 032

What does the maple leaf of Canada’s flag mean?

The maple leaf has been a symbol or emblem in both French and English speaking Canada since at least the 19th century – perhaps even earlier. The sap of maple is incredibly nutritious, and as a result, valuable. It has been harvested – whether by settlers or indigenous Canadians – for thousands of years.

The maple leaf first appeared on a Canadian coat of arms in 1868, when it was used by Ontario and Quebec. By 1921, it had made its way onto the Coat of Arms of Canada.

A year earlier, Alexander Muir had written a song called ‘Maple Leaf Forever’ which was for many years considered Canada’s national song. And, in 1876, just eight years later, the maple leaf made its first appearance on Canadian coins.

The maple leaf on the Canadian flag has eleven points. Some people have speculated that these might represent the ten provinces of Canada, plus the federal government.

But, sadly, the eleven points have no special significance. They were chosen after tests in a wind tunnel demonstrated that eleven points looked better on the flag than nine points when it is blowing in the wind.

The ‘Great Canadian Flag Debate’

Choosing Canada’s new flag was not a simple process.

Lester B Pearson, Canada’s Prime Minister, kicked off the debate by proposing plans in Parliament for a new flag on 15 June 1964. The new flag, he argued, should have “three maple leafs conjoined on one stem… the red leaves occupying a field of white between vertical sections of blue”. His design became known as the ‘Pearson Pennant’.

The national debate which followed was tense, and divided the nation.

The Pearson Pennant

The Pearson Pennant

Some Canadians wanted to retain the Union Jack on the flag, while others wanted a new symbol to represent Canada. Those who wanted a new symbol were divided on what it should be. And some simply didn’t care: “Quebec does not give a tinkers dam about the new flag”, said Pierre Trudeau, father of current prime minister Justin Trudeau.

To take the tension out of the debate, a fifteen member all-party committee was formed. Yes, that’s right… Canada’s flag was designed by committee.

The committee considered 3,541 proposals, 2,136 of which contained a maple leaf, 408 the Union Jack, 389 a beaver, and 359 a fleurs-de-lys. Eventually the field narrowed to three designs:

  • a flag with the Union Jack in one corner and the banner of France in the other;
  • Pearson’s maple leaf flag with blue borders; and
  • a flag with a red maple leaf at its centre flanked by two red borders.

In their final vote, the committee chose the red maple leaf, designed by Jacques St-Cyr.

But the Great Canadian Flag Debate was not done yet.

It took a filibuster and 250 speeches in Parliament before behind the scenes deals built a coalition of Liberals and Francophone conservatives with enough votes to force the bill through.

After being proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II on 28 January 1965, Canada’s flag was flown for the first time at a ceremony on Parliament Hill on 15 February 1965.

Canada flag map

Here is a flag map of Canada that you can download and save to your computer. To download, right click on the image and select ‘save’.

Canada flag map

Canadian provincial flags

Each Canadian province and territory has its own flag.

As you can see, each flag usually reflects some aspect of the province or territory’s heritage. For example:

  • the flags of British Columbia, Ontario and Manitoba each have a Union Jack in the flag’s design;
  • the flag of Nova Scotia, which began life as a colony of Scotland, contains a blue saltire (a mirror image of the flag of Scotland) with the royal coat of arms of Scotland at its centre; and
  • the flag of Nunavut contains a blue star, which represents the leaders of the Inuit community and a red inuksuk, which is an Inuit land marker.

Canadian Red Ensign

Before 1965, Canada did not have an official flag although – because others around the world felt the need for a flag of some kind to exist for official state events, sporting events, etc – the Canadian Red Ensign was used as Canada’s de-facto flag from 1868 until 1965.

Canada Red Ensign Flag

The flag itself is a British Red Ensign (a union jack in the upper quadrant, on a red background) with an added Canadian Coat of Arms.

The design has varied over the years and, as seen in the section on provincial flags, two Canadian Provinces (Ontario and Manitoba) have a variant of the red ensign as their provincial flag.

From 1892 the Red Ensign was formally adopted for use on Canadian merchant ships, although it had been in de facto use for at least 20 years beforehand.

Then, beginning in 1924 the Red Ensign was flown on Canadian government buildings around the world and, from 1945 onwards, it was flown on government buildings inside Canada.

The Red Ensign was also regularly used by the Canadian army – officially during the Second World War, for example, and un-officially during the First World War. Many military veterans still proudly display the Canadian Red Ensign outside of their homes today.

A Canadian Blue Ensign was used as the flag of the Royal Canadian Navy until it was replaced in 1965 by the Maple Leaf flag.